A Walk in the Park

Published 9:49 am Thursday, May 15, 2014

The 300-foot-long Canopy Walkway winds through the woods before taking  visitors out to a spectacular view of the Galien River, 60 feet above the ground. (Leader photo/JILL McCAUGHAN)

The 300-foot-long Canopy Walkway winds through the woods before taking
visitors out to a spectacular view of the Galien River, 60 feet above the ground.
(Leader photo/JILL McCAUGHAN)

NEW BUFFALO — You may not ever have the opportunity to walk among the treetops of the cloud forests in Costa Rica, but thanks to cooperation between Berrien County and the Pokagon Fund, a very similar experience is now available right in your own backyard.

“We’re all excited,” said County Commissioner Andrew Vavra. “The whole county should be excited, and our visitors should be excited because it’s a great destination!”

With the May 8 opening of the Galien River Park, residents and visitors to Berrien County can now walk out over the river valley just north of New Buffalo, taking in a view of the marshlands and woods that really is striking.

“It’s been a long time coming because the property was bought in 2001, and there have been other priorities for funding since then,” explained Commissioner Vavra. “But, anything that’s great is worth the wait. And, I think that anyone who goes to the park now will find out how great it is.”

Easy to access from U.S. 12, the entrance to the park is located directly across the road from the New Buffalo Township Hall at 17425 Red Arrow Highway. Currently, admission to the park is free.

“There will be no entry fee,” Vavra said. “You won’t have to have a county park pass until phase two comes in—when a building or staff is there. Then, it will be part of the park system’s permit fee structure.”

Upon arriving at the park, visitors will find a small parking area surrounded by tall deciduous trees. A gravel chip path leads springtime visitors past patches of May apples and violets growing under the canopy. Several unpaved paths branch off into the woods, allowing visitors to choose “the road less travelled” if that’s what they prefer.

However, following the gravel path will soon bring visitors to a fork. While the right side of the path will eventually take visitors down a winding path to the Marsh Boardwalk and the River Viewing and Fishing Platform, that portion of the path has not yet been completed.

However, taking the path to the left will provide visitors with access to the 300-foot-long Canopy Walkway that leads to the 60-foot-high Marsh Overlook Tower. A stairway at the beginning of that walkway enables visitors to access the Marsh Boardwalk, which winds through the marshland and up alongside the riverbank.

“The Canopy Walkway is very wide and very secure, and you come out from the tree, and then all of a sudden, you come out of them. You get out into the open, and it makes you feel like a part of the trees,” Vavra said.

From the Marsh Overlook Tower, visitors can look down upon the natural beauty and perhaps see some of the wildlife that calls that portion of the Galien River its home.

“It’s a way to get out,” Vavra said. “It’s a way to get down to the river, and, also it’s a way to get up where the birds are in that skyway walk.”

Vavra encourages all visitors to make use of the Canopy Walkway, even if they are concerned with the height of the tower.

“Personally, I’m a little cautious with heights, but myself going on it, I had no problem,” Vavra said. “So, a lot of folks that may feel that it’s a little high for them—I would suggest that they go out and try it for themselves.”

While the park is still under construction, many visitors are already taking advantage of the new opportunity to get out and reconnect with nature in a unique way.

“It’s fabulous. I think it’s just great that the Tribe and other people threw in the money and got grants to build a wonderful thing like this,” said John Burke, who has a home on Dewey Lake. “It looks gorgeous. I hope they can keep it this way. It is really cool!”

While the park is already receiving rave reviews from visitors like Burke, the county has plans to make it even better when the second phase of the project begins at an undetermined point in the future.

“There’s a couple things I would like to see happen in phase two,” Vavra said. “I would like to see an interpretive center that gives visitors an educational appreciation of the site—of the significance of a Great Lakes marsh, the significance of the Galien River, and what actually inhabits it.”

Vavra would also like to see an emphasis on the way the site was used by Native Americans.

“Obviously, the site was important to them, with the water and the fishery, and with the presence and reestablishment of the Pokagon tribe’s influence in that southwest area, I think we can reach out to them and provide educational opportunities so people can better understand Native Americans and their history,” Vavra said. “It’s a perfect fit for this park, and that’s what I would envision.”

As spring progresses, more leaves form on trees, and more wildlife become comfortable with the new visitors in their midst, the Galien River Park will surely provide many more opportunities for visitors to get out and appreciate the natural beauty of Berrien County and its river systems.